Esther Allen, a Professor at Baruch and the CUNY Graduate Center, is the editor and translator of José Martí: Selected Writings. She is currently writing a biography of Martí.
 (July 2020)

Follow Esther Allen on Twitter: @EstherlAllen.


Fiction and Responsibility

Lori Berenson at a parole hearing, Lima, January 2011

The Gringa

by Andrew Altschul
The Gringa, a recent novel by Andrew Altschul, raises an important question: Does fiction, particularly fiction that claims to be based on history, have any responsibilities at all vis-à-vis real people and their lives, places they inhabit, truth? At a time when systematic disinformation campaigns are abetting the rise of authoritarian governments the world over, might it be unwise to discard all concepts of boundaries or dividing lines between the imaginative freedom of literary fiction and distortion or falsehood?


The Art of the Possible at Havana’s Bienal

Roberto Fabelo's Put a Good Face On It, on the Malecón, part of the thirteenth Bienal de la Habana, Havana, Cuba, 2019

The Cuban government, which regularly arrests artists and journalists, also expected to welcome a record-breaking 5.1 million tourists this year. Cuba’s leaders are well aware that cultural capital is one of their nation’s major assets. Rage, pain, and dissent were not only openly on view in this year’s Bienal de la Habana in Cuba, but were featured and promoted with hashtags like #CubaEsCultura. In her powerful statement, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera expressed her admiration for the Bienal’s curators but explained that she was not attending because the Ministry of Culture was diverting resources to the Bienal in order to “whitewash its international image.” Her argument—that people shouldn’t travel to Cuba for the Bienal because to do so justifies the Cuban government’s human rights abuses—is one the US government has been making, in more general terms, for nearly six decades. Less than a month after the Bienal ended, the US delivered a gut punch to Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurial class, banning cruise ships and other vessels from docking in Cuban ports, and prohibiting group travel to Cuba for cultural and educational purposes.

A Place at the Table: An Exchange

Judy Chicago: a detail of The Dinner Party (1974–1979)

Judy Chicago: To clarify, except for Clarice Lispector, all of the women Allen mentions are included on the “Heritage Floor” of The Dinner Party and the accompanying “Heritage Panels,” which visually detail those women’s various contributions. Moreover, a photograph of Sor Juana figures prominently on one of the panels. Esther Allen: Readers may now take note that the names of La Malinche, Santa Theresa de Avila, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, and Frida Kahlo are there, down underfoot.

Returning the Gaze, with a Vengeance

Marta María Pérez Bravo: from Para concebir (To conceive), 1985–1986

In the video pieces Transfiguración elemento tierra (1983), Jennifer Hackshaw and María Luisa González, of the artist collective Yeni & Nan, stare into the camera silently and without expression. Little by little, the viewer notices that they don’t ever blink, not once; to achieve this, both artists trained in meditation. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” John Berger wrote. The radical, unyielding intensity of Hackshaw and Gonzalez’s transfixed twin gaze does not conceive of being looked at. It sees.

The Crazed Euphoria of Lucrecia Martel’s ‘Zama’

A still from Lucrecia Martel's Zama, 2017

In Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel Zama, there is no shortage of brutality. Not so in Lucrecia Martel’s film adaptation. She is kinder to her protagonist than the man who originally devised him—and for a reason: her Zama portrays a society so violent in its essence that there isn’t much Zama’s body or sword can do to make matters worse. This redirection of attention from individual acts of violence toward the structural violence of colonialism itself isn’t a departure but an acute reading of the novel.

Lygia Pape’s Radical Banquet

Lygia Pape: Livro do tempo (Book of Time), 1961-1963

By the time she made it, Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s career had evolved through two schools of geometric abstraction—Concretism and its less rigid Rio de Janeiro counterpart Neo-Concretism. She had made paintings, sculpture, artists’ books, films, installations, and performance art. A retrospective of Pape’s work currently at the Met Breuer—her first solo exhibit in the United States—is highly conceptual, drawing on semiotics, architectural theory, and anthropology, but never losing a deep connection with the visceral realities of daily life.